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Frank de Boer’s equal pay comments are unfounded and uninformed

The manager’s comments are part of a wider, uninformed discussion about the topic

New York Red Bulls v Atlanta United FC : MLS Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

Since the middle of yesterday afternoon Frank de Boer has been at the center of the equal pay discussion in soccer after an interview with the Guardian. In it, he said to Chris Fuhrmeister about the topic:

‘“I think for me, it’s ridiculous,” De Boer says of the policy. “It’s the same like tennis. If there are watching, for the World Cup final, 500 million people or something like that, and 100 million for a women’s final, that’s a difference. So it’s not the same. And of course they have to be paid what they deserve to [earn] and not less, just what they really deserve. If it’s just as popular as the men, they will get it, because the income and the advertising will go into that. But it’s not like that, so why do they have to earn the same? I think it’s ridiculous. I don’t understand that.”’

My initial reaction to this was to cringe, it’s my initial reaction to a lot of things when people who I think should know better, or at least could, don’t. My second reaction was a sort of stunned disbelief that we’re still having this discussion in the year of our lord two thousand and nineteen, but here we are - reading comments from a coach who sounds like a dorm bro sounding off on r/soccer.

There’s a lot going on here and I think it says more about equal pay and how it is debated than about the overall state of equal pay in the sport of soccer. Just to lay my cards out on the table, I have no way of knowing this for sure, but I do not think that Frank de Boer knows what he is talking about or has done much to educate himself about equal pay; and I think his comments reflect that. I think it makes him a lot like many people, mostly men, who do the same while also not watching women’s soccer or discussing it unless the equal pay topic comes up.

De Boer’s statement lacks nuance and even misses a basic understanding of how and why the topic of equal pay is being brought up. It does not reference what women’s teams in Holland and around the world are asking for, why they are asking for it, how they are navigating it or why he might disagree with whether or not they should get those things. Rather, de Boer reaches for a clumsy analogy that misses the mark:

‘“I think it started because a woman [was] getting underpaid, especially at [managerial] positions,” he says. “They have to earn the same as a man. I think if you have a manager position for a bank or something, you have to earn the same what the men did because it’s not physically, just only here [points to head], so why do you have to earn less, because you’re doing the same job as a man? I think that’s also dropped a little bit into the sports world, like tennis and soccer. But I think that’s still different.”’

This is a jaw dropping statement that is as lacking context as it is lazy, the only thing that would have made it worse is if he trod out the phrase, “as the father of daughters” (which de Boer is).

The Dutch National Team, who made it to the final of the Women’s World Cup a year after the men’s side failed to qualify, was recently paid equally to their male counterparts. Their rise from a side that reached the final in the most competitive women’s tournament ever in just their second appearance illustrates that with resources, women’s teams can improve and draw the kinds of crowds that men’s teams do.

Outside the Netherlands, the USWNT has given detailed interviews about why they fight for equal pay. They’ve filed lawsuits about it with reams of documents that are publicly available. They’ve testified to Congress about it.

Speaking more broadly about women’s soccer, other teams such as Argentina, New Zealand, Norway, Colombia, Spain, Chile, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Nigeria, and the list goes on... have had to overcome discrimination and unequal treatment by their federations to perform on the world’s stage. On the eve of hosting the World Cup, the French Women’s National Team moved out of the national training facility so that the men could train... for a friendly. In sum, women’s soccer players have to do twice as much work as men’s soccer players, they have to practice in substandard facilities, play on worse surfaces, and constantly justify why they should even play the sport in the first place.

I have no idea if Frank de Boer knows any of this. Maybe he just gave his knee-jerk reaction to a question on a subject he doesn’t know much about that he wasn’t expecting in an interview that was mostly focused on his career and path to Atlanta United, though it was a totally fair question. To the extent that de Boer has an interest in this and why it evoked such a strong reaction, it seemed like the manager is adding his voice to the phenomena of people (usually men) who do not follow women’s soccer, do not watch women’s soccer, and are not interested in learning about the topic but still have strong opinions that they share without having the complete picture of the issues.

Soccer, inequality, and revenue

Let’s get something out of the way, Frank de Boer manages in a league that profits off of the success of the US Women’s National Team. Soccer United Marketing, a company owned by MLS, controls the marketing rights to the USWNT. The revenue they produce brings money to MLS, it helps pay the salaries of MLS players and managers like Frank de Boer. MLS itself has a hard time making money. The TV viewership is terrible, in general the overall sports media in the US does not pay much attention to the league, and it is not moving the needle globally — not by a long shot. Atlanta United is very popular and successful and maybe MLS will get to a higher level one day, but without the USWNT holding up a big part of what has led to the growth and investment in the league (that owners can buy a stake in SUM by buying an MLS franchise) the league would not even be in the position that it is in currently.

Not only that, but FIFA does not market women’s soccer as well as it markets men’s soccer. It does not live up to the idea that it treats women and men as equals when it comes to the sport. The deck is stacked against the women and punishing them for it by paying them a smaller wages is grossly unjust and only perpetuates a self-fulfilling prophecy. FIFA is also a non-profit entity, its vision statement reads: “FIFA’s new vision is to promote the game of football, protect its integrity and bring the game to all,” not to earn revenue. In addition, with $2.7 billion in reserves, it could afford to make equal bonuses for both tournaments. The fact that the organization does not pay men and women equally for World Cup bonuses is based on gender, not how well the players help to fulfill that vision. In addition, the side that Frank de Boer and those who oppose equal pay are on is the same side that a misguided organization like US Soccer and corrupt one like FIFA is on.

The problem is not advertising. It’s not pure numbers of viewers or how good the players are at doing their jobs. It’s patriarchy and sexism.

A chance to move forward

Hopefully de Boer and the team can use what he’s said as a chance to get a better understanding of the topic and see the deeper nuance of it. To the extent that the manager wants to have a good faith discussion about it, if he wants to disagree that’s obviously fine, he should at least sound like he knows what he’s talking about. Darren Eales criticized de Boer and distanced the team from what the manager said, which is a good step. Atlanta United has made diversity a priority in its marketing — recent events may raise questions about how that is being executed — but this is a moment to step back and take the marketing around diversity and turn it into something meaningful — change and advocacy. Otherwise, it is more empty rhetoric.